Book Review – Start with Why

After watching a number of Simon Sinek videos and hearing a lot about this book from many sources, I had to read this book. It turned out to be a great time investment. Even though sometimes if feels a bit repetitive, it drives a very good point – it’s not what you build that that is important, it’s why you are building it.

This rang a bell because as a product manager for some years, I’ve had customers come to me asking “can you add a button here” or “can you add this option there”. Which is something nice because it’s customer feedback. But it’s wrong because the product they are using is not a collection of buttons or options. The product they are using (and which we are building) not an answer to “what”. It’s and answer to “why”. Why are my customers using my product? Because it performs a function they require. So when they ask me to add a button I ask them back: why do you need that button? Because many times the problem they have can be solved more broadly and better understanding the why. And while the book talks about organizations and not products, I think there is a strong relation.

The central idea in the book is in this paragraph:

WHAT: Every single company and organization on the planet knows WHAT they do. This is true no matter how big or small, no matter what industry. Everyone is easily able to describe the products or services a company sells or the job function they have within that system. WHATs are easy to identify. HOW: Some companies and people know HOW they do WHAT they do. Whether you call them a “differentiating value proposition,” “proprietary process” or “unique selling proposition,” HOWs are often given to explain how something is different or better. Not as obvious as WHATs, many think these are the differentiating or motivating factors in a decision. It would be false to assume that’s all that is required. There is one missing detail: WHY: Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. When I say WHY, I don’t mean to make money—that’s a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?

Here are some good quotes I took from the book:

  • Regardless of the process or the goals, we all want to make educated decisions. More importantly, we all want to make the right decisions. As we all know, however, not all decisions work out to be the right ones, regardless of the amount of data we collect.
  • There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.
  • When fear is employed, facts are incidental. Deeply seated in our biological drive to survive, that emotion cannot be quickly wiped away with facts and figures.
  • Peer pressure works not because the majority or the experts are always right, but because we fear that we may be wrong.
  • Real innovation changes the course of industries or even society. The light bulb, the microwave oven, the fax machine, iTunes. These are true innovations that changed how we conduct business, altered how we live our lives, and, in the case of iTunes, challenged an industry to completely reevaluate its business model.
  • There is a big difference between repeat business and loyalty. Repeat business is when people do business with you multiple times. Loyalty is when people are willing to turn down a better product or a better price to continue doing business with you. Loyal customers often don’t even bother to research the competition or entertain other options. Loyalty is not easily won. Repeat business, however, is. All it takes is more manipulations.
  • Having good-quality products is of course important. No matter how clear your WHY, if WHAT you sell doesn’t work, the whole thing falls flat. But a company doesn’t need to have the best products, they just need to be good or very good. Better or best is a relative comparison. Without first understanding WHY, the comparison itself is of no value to the decision maker.
  • If a customer feels inspired to buy a product, rather than manipulated, they will be able to verbalize the reasons why they think what they bought is better. Good quality and features matter, but they are not enough to produce the dogged loyalty that all the most inspiring leaders and companies are able to command. It is the cause that is represented by the company, brand, product or person that inspires loyalty.
  • When you force people to make decisions with only the rational part of their brain, they almost invariably end up “overthinking.” These rational decisions tend to take longer to make … and can often be of lower quality. In contrast, decisions made with the limbic brain, gut decisions, tend to be faster, higher-quality decisions. This is one of the primary reasons why teachers tell students to go with their first instinct when taking a multiple-choice test, to trust their gut. The more time spent thinking about the answer, the bigger the risk that it may be the wrong one. Our limbic brains are smart and often know the right thing to do. It is our inability to verbalize the reasons that may cause us to doubt ourselves or trust the empirical evidence when our gut tells us not to.
  • Companies will tell you that the reason they start with WHAT they do or HOW they do it is because that’s what their customers asked for. Quality. Service. Price. Features. That’s what the data reported. But for the fact that the part of the brain that controls decision-making is different from the part of the brain that is able to report back that decision, it would be a perfectly valid conclusion to give people what they ask for. Unfortunately, there is more evidence that sales don’t significantly increase and bonds of loyalty are not formed simply when companies say or do everything their customers want. Henry Ford summed it up best. “If I had asked people what they wanted,” he said, “they would have said a faster horse.”
  • Great leaders and great organizations are good at seeing what most of us can’t see. They are good at giving us things we would never think of asking for.
  • We remind ourselves of our values by writing them on the wall . . . as nouns. Integrity. Honesty. Innovation. Communication, for example. But nouns are not actionable. They are things. You can’t build systems or develop incentives around those things. It’s nearly impossible to hold people accountable to nouns. “A little more innovation today if you would please, Bob.” And if you have to write “honesty” on your wall to remind you to do it, then you probably have bigger problems anyway. For values or guiding principles to be truly effective they have to be verbs.
  • Everything you say and everything you do has to prove what you believe. A WHY is just a belief. That’s all it is. HOWs are the actions you take to realize that belief. And WHATs are the results of those actions—everything you say and do: your products, services, marketing, PR, culture and whom you hire. If people don’t buy WHAT you do but WHY you do it, then all these things must be consistent.
  • Some in management positions operate as if they are in a tree of monkeys. They make sure that everyone at the top of the tree looking down sees only smiles. But all too often, those at the bottom looking up see only asses.
  • The reason so many small businesses fail … is because passion alone can’t cut it. For passion to survive, it needs structure. A WHY without the HOWs, passion without structure, has a very high probability of failure.
  • The WHY does not come from looking ahead at what you want to achieve and figuring out an appropriate strategy to get there. It is not born out of any market research. It does not come from extensive interviews with customers or even employees. It comes from looking in the completely opposite direction from where you are now. Finding WHY is a process of discovery, not invention.
  • When you compete against everyone else, no one wants to help you. But when you compete against yourself, everyone wants to help you.
  • Leadership requires two things: a vision of the world that does not yet exist and the ability to communicate it.
  • Our visions are the world we imagine, the tangible results of what the world would look like if we spent every day in pursuit of our WHY.

Loved it. Buy it from your preferred local or online store.

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